GMAT SC: The Myth of “Intended Meaning”

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Joan of Arc…preparing for the GMAT exam

Sometimes I read explanations for GMAT Sentence Correction questions that state something like this: “Choice X cannot be the correct answer because it changes the meaning of the original sentence,” or, “Choice Y cannot be right, because it is not the intended meaning of the sentence.”

Let’s be clear: there is no such thing as “original” or “intended” meaning on the GMAT. 

Any answer choice can be correct in Sentence Correction as long as it offers a sentence that is clear of grammar errors and makes logical real-world sense. If choice (A) offers a meaning that does not make logical sense, then it cannot be the correct answer. Choice (D) may offer a different meaning than (A) and be correct, because it corrects the meaning error in (A). It is not healthy for GMAT students to give the “(A) sentence” more weight, gravitas, or benefit of the doubt when it comes to meaning, simply because that sentence happens to occupy the first position in the question. (A)’s meaning is not any more likely to be correct or logical than (B)’s, (C)’s, (D)’s, or (E)’s. In order to step up your SC game, make sure you do not give (A) unnecessary value over the other options.

As for “intended,” what the GMAT intends is for the student to select an answer choice with a logical meaning. If that is (A), then great! If that is (B), then great! Just because (B)’s meaning is different than (A)’s, doesn’t mean (B) is automatically wrong.

In order to illustrate this point, let’s look at this question from the GMAT Official Guide:

Joan of Arc, a young Frenchwoman who claimed to be divinely inspired, turned the tide of English victories in her country by liberating the city of Orleans and she persuaded Charles VII of France to claim his throne.

Before we look at the answer choices, let’s remove the unnecessary modifiers and strip this long sentence down to its simple meaning:

Joan turned the tide by liberating AND she persuaded Charles to claim his throne.

Here we have the marker “and” separating two clauses. This is an indication we should check for Parallelism. We know the GMAT loves verbs to be parallel, so let’s highlight the verbs in the sentence that could be parallel.

Joan turned the tide by liberating AND she persuaded Charles to claim his throne.

We are faced with a decision. Is “persuaded” supposed to be parallel with “turned,” or is it supposed to be parallel with “liberating”? Often the logical meaning of the sentence will only make sense with ONE version, so let’s examine how the sentence would sound both ways:

Joan turned the tide by liberating AND persuaded Charles to claim his throne.

In this version, Joan is doing two separate actions: turning the tide, and persuading Charles.

Joan turned the tide by liberating AND persuading Charles to claim his throne.

In this version, Joan is only doing one action: turning the tide, and she is using two methods to help her turn the tide: she is (1) liberating the town, and she is (2) persuading Charles to claim his throne.

Here’s the difficulty with this question: either meaning is logical, and could be correct!!! If we read (A), and assumed that just because it said “persuaded,” then it HAS to be parallel with “turned,” we would be missing the nuance. We cannot eliminate (A) based on meaning, so let’s look at Parallelism.

Whether the Parallelism is turned/persuaded, or liberating/persuading, we know (because of our parallelism grammar rules), that the word “she” should not precede “persuaded” since it is unnecessary for the parallelism. Therefore, (A) is out.

Now let’s look at the other choices:

(B) persuaded Charles VII of France in claiming his throne
(C) persuading that the throne be claimed by Charles VII of France
(D) persuaded Charles VII of France to claim his throne
(E) persuading that Charles VII of France should claim the throne

The “that” in (C) and (E) breaks the paralllelism, since “liberating THE CITY” is not parallel with “persuading THAT….” If we had had the word “that” after liberating, then perhaps one of these two options could have been correct.

Now we’re on to our final two options:

(B) persuaded Charles VII of France in claiming his throne
(D) persuaded Charles VII of France to claim his throne

We now see that the correct meaning is the turned/persuaded Parallelism, so Joan did two distinct actions. Here, the only difference is the preposition preceding the verb “claiming/claim.”

Two questions must be asked:

(1) when faced with a 2nd verb (“persuaded” being the 1st verb), does the GMAT stylistically prefer the INFINITIVE form (“to claim”), or the PARTICIPLE form (“claiming”)?

(2) what is the correct preposition, idiomatically, to use with the verb “persuaded”? do we say “persuaded in” or “persuaded to”?

The GMAT prefers the infinitive form, and the correct idiom is “persuaded to.” For both of these reasons, the correct answer is (D).

Takeaways:

  • There is no such thing as “intended” meaning. Ask yourself: does each sentence make real-world sense on its own, yes or no? If no, get rid of it.
  • The correct answer can have a slightly different meaning than the meaning presented in (A).
  • (A) is not “special,” or any more likely to be correct than (B), (C), (D), or (E). Let’s not give it unusual credence, or get SC questions wrong because we second-guessed our instincts.

 

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Factorials (!) and Divisibility

exclamationIt’s amazing how something as simple as a (!) symbol can throw us all for a loop, even when really we’re just looking at a very simple divisibility question. This is my own question designed to mimic a GMATPrep question.

Start by setting a timer for 2-minutes and try this one on your own, then scroll down for the explanation!

Which of the following is an integer?

I. 10! / 3!
II. 9! / 8!
III. 13! / 11! 5!

A) I only
B) II only
C) III only
D) I and II only
E) I, II, and III

Explanation:

If the result of a fraction is an integer that means that what is in the denominator divides evenly into what is in the numerator. The question for each of these Roman numerals becomes: will the denominator go evenly into the numerator?

Since we know that 10! = 10 x 9 x 8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1, and 3! = 3 x 2 x 1, it is obvious that the denominator of Roman Numeral 1 will go evenly into its numerator.

This same logic can be applied with Roman Numeral 2. As long as the factorial in the numerator is larger than the factorial in the denominator, then we will get a resulting integer.

Roman Numeral 3 is more complex. If we start by cancelling out the 11! from both the numerator and the denominator, the resulting fraction becomes:

(13 x 12) / (5 x 4 x 3 x 2)

Since 4 x 3 = 12, we can cancel those values out:
13 / (5 x 2)

Now we are stuck. 13 is a prime number, so neither 5 nor 2 will divide evenly into it. The result will be a decimal.

The correct answer is (D).

 

Reading Comprehension: the Devil’s in the Details

How confident are you at dealing with confusing RC details?

To start, set a timer for 4 minutes. Read the passage, take notes, and  then attack the question below the passage. When the timer dings, move on to the rest of the blog below! Good luck!

Passage

The fact that superior service can generate a competitive advantage for a company does not mean that every attempt at improving service will create such an advantage. Investments in service, like those in production and distribution, must be balanced against other types of investments on the basis of direct, tangible benefits such as cost reduction and increased revenues. If a company is already effectively on a par with its competitors because it provides service that avoids a damaging reputation and keeps customers from leaving at an unacceptable rate, then investment in higher service levels may be wasted, since service is a deciding factor for customers only in extreme situations.

This truth was not apparent to managers of one regional bank, which failed to improve its competitive position despite its investment in reducing the time a customer had to wait for a teller. The bank managers did not recognize the level of customer inertia in the consumer banking industry that arises from the inconvenience of switching banks. Nor did they analyze their service improvement to determine whether it would attract new customers by producing a new standard of service that would excite customers or by proving difficult for competitors to copy. The only merit of the improvement was that it could easily be described to customers.

Question

According to the passage, investments in service are comparable to investments in production and distribution in terms of the

(A) tangibility of the benefits that they tend to confer
(B) increased revenues that they ultimately produce
(C) basis on which they need to be weighed
(D) insufficient analysis that managers devote to them
(E) degree of competitive advantage that they are likely to provide

Explanation

In order to get RC questions correct in general, we need to understand what the question-type is, and what kind of expectation that sets up for the correct answer.

Here, the phrase “according to the passage” tells us this is a Detail question. Detail questions are essentially “research” questions. They ask what the passage literally says about a specific detail. We are NOT meant to draw any kind of Inference (that’s for “Inference” questions, duh). 🙂

Our job in a Detail question is to them research everything the passage says about the specific detail and then write those details down in shorthand on our scratch pad. We then go through the answer choices, reading all 5, and quickly eliminating the three “worst” choices.

Finally, after narrowing down our selection to two, we choose the one that is the closest to the specific language in the passage, without misrepresenting the author’s tone. (We’re always on the lookout for “extreme” language in answer choices in RC, since most RC passages have relatively moderate tones.)

Let’s apply our strategy to this question!

DETAIL question (choose the literal answer!)

Rephrase: How are Service invests and Prod/Dist invests similar?

Let’s look at what the passage says about “investments in service” and “investments in production and distribution”:

– Service can give advantage, but could be a waste
– Must be balanced re: costs/rev benefits like prod/dist

Prediction: Both investments need to be balanced w/other invests re: $$$

Let’s look at the answer choices:

A) uses some keywords, maybe
B) nope…author isn’t saying they both make equal $$
C) yup, strongly matches our prediction
D) managers not mentioned
E) nothing specifically about “degrees” of advantage, just that they both need to be balanced

Our best two answer choices are (A) and (C). Now that we have it down to two, we ask ourselves, since this is a DETAIL question, which choice best restates the exact wording from the passage, while answering the specific question posed?

The answer is (C). The author’s point was that BOTH types of investments must be balanced against other investments to make sure the $$$ is all good. That is how they were similar.

Nice try, GMAT!

The “GMAT trickery” of (A) is something we commonly see in tempting wrong-answer RC Detail questions: it re-uses exact words from the passage, but does not answer the specific question posed.

The passage said, “must be balanced…on the basis of direct, tangible benefits.”

This choice says the two investments are similar because of the “tangibility of the benefits that they tend to confer.” Notice the repeated language.

The question asked how the two investments are SIMILAR. They are similar because they must be balanced on the BASIS on tangible benefits, not that the tangible benefits of the investments are themselves similar. Maybe the two types of investments have totally different benefits. We don’t know.

Students tend to miss RC questions when they:

  1. do not understand the question-type,
  2. do not clarify the specific question being asked by “dumbing it down” in their own words, and…
  3. move through the answer choices too quickly, going from “5 to 1” rather than “5 to 2.”

“5 to 1” = danger of falling in love with the 1st decent answer choice you read
“5 to 2” = a higher likelihood the correct answer will be in your Top Two, and then you can analyze from there

How to Get Similar Questions Right
-Know that “according to the passage” = Detail questions
-Know that tempting wrong answers in Detail questions may “steal” from the passage, then distort it
-Rephrase the Question in your own words! These question-stems are not always clear!
-Re-read the relevant parts of the passage and WRITE DOWN a prediction in your own words. Never, ever rely on memory for Detail questions!